Sunday, August 28, 2011

Commentators look beyond the numbers of NBA lockout

One of the most prevalent questions in the media coverage surrounding the ongoing NBA lockout is: does the NBA make money? It may seem like a simple question, but as of yet, it doesn’t have a simple answer.

For example, Larry Coon, in a mid-July article for, compares leaked financial information from the New Orleans Hornets and New Jersey Nets to data provided by the NBA and explains why the numbers don’t seem to add up.

Nate Silver, on his typically political blog FiveThirtyEight, used some of the same leaked information as well as valuation estimates from Forbes and Financial World to cast doubt on the NBA’s claims of red ledgers.

However, in the same day, Silver published another blog post showcasing a statement from the NBA’s Tim Frank that disputed some of Silver’s earlier post, disagreed with Forbes’ valuations, and reaffirmed the NBA’s claim that it lost $340 million in 2009-2010.

The bottom line in this aspect of the debate is this: the NBA has not released enough information for journalists to provide a definitive answer for the seemingly simple question of whether or not the league is profitable.

So, in the absence of this fact, some commentators have turned to more philosophical questions to fill their pages during the lengthening NBA hiatus.

Ari Paul, in “Class Struggle on the Court” from The Nation’s recent sports-centric issue, compares the NBA’s labor situation to more general perceptions about labor relations in the US. He disputes the pessimistic claim that this and other professional league labor debates boil down to billionaires arguing with millionaires. He, instead, points out that a large percentage of NBA employees are either minimum-salary players who only play a few years or behind-the-scenes and on-the-concourse workers who make NBA games happen.

According to Paul, in ignoring the value of all of their thousands of employees – from LeBron James to ticket taker #327, NBA owners are reinforcing “an impulse in the United States to say to skilled workers that they can afford to take some cuts,” an impulse that “typically stops at CEOs and owners.”

Malcolm Gladwell – better known for his social philosophy than his sports writing – asks a different question for a recent article on affiliate Grantland. Instead of asking how much cash the owners should pocket in the owner/employee split, Gladwell wonders if owners of professional sport franchises should profit financially at all.

Gladwell argues that many professional owners don’t run their franchises like businesses, and as such, shouldn’t expect to receive any monetary benefits. What they can expect, however, are psychic benefits, which Gladwell defines as, “the pleasure that someone gets from owning something — over and above economic returns.”

These psychic benefits should increase the value of sports franchises above and beyond any financial losses, according to Gladwell. He concludes that any owners who do not feel satisfied by the total value – monetary and psychic – of their franchises, should sell to other owners who might.

It seems the more time the NBA and NBA players association spend debating the finer points of revenue sharing and amortization of team buying, the more likely commentators are to question the fundamental nature of the debate in question.

This critical questioning and commentary is a valuable step in contextualizing the NBA lockout debate, which may seem abstract and abstruse to fans that may not understand the finer points of amortization and will likely never see $340 million in their lifetimes. This added perspective should help the public decide how to view the NBA, as well as other sports franchises, in the future.

--Brett Sherrick

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